SURFing Underwater

SURFing Underwater

Visitors to Wander, a recent exhibition hosted by RISD’s Nature Lab, were pleasantly surprised to enter a darkened room filled with soothing sounds, swaths of blue tulle and dreamy projections of gelatinous sea creatures. There, they were immediately enveloped in the world of one of the earth’s most basic yet mysterious organisms: marine plankton. Conceived and built by Priscilla Ahn 16 FD (who is a dual-degree student also majoring in neuroscience at Brown) and Nicolas Baird (a senior at Brown studying biophilics and visual art), the summer show celebrated the magical attributes of these tiny creatures. David Kim MFA 14 DM helped facilitate the creative process while serving as a mentor to the students.

“We wanted visitors to feel as though they were underwater with the organisms,” explains Ahn.“We feel as though [Wander] really succeeded in transporting the audience into another state of mind.”

The tactile installation was an integral part of an ongoing research project sponsored by the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF), an educational initiative that seeks to advance data visualization research and enhance public understanding of the profound impact of climate change on marine life. SURF students work in the Nature Lab as just one aspect of a landmark $20-million grant RISD and eight other Rhode Island colleges and universities received from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NSF grant – which went to a consortium of Rhode Island colleges including RISD, Brown and the University of Rhode Island (URI) – is part of a national effort known as EPSCoR (the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). Since 2010 RISD students and faculty have been contributing their unique vision to EPSCoR as the only art and design school in the country selected to participate in the five-year project.

To create the Wander installation this summer, Baird and Ahn first acquired live specimens in the field and used research grade microscopes to record their images. The team spent hours in Photoshop blowing up images of adult gammaridean amphipods, brachyuran crab larva and other species to more than 1,000 times their original size. Because the scale was so immense, the students developed a custom technique to meld the images together. The team also designed a tactile feature for an iPad that enabled visitors to further investigate the plankton’s bodily structures.

The goal was to make people aware of the crucial role plankton play in influencing marine ecosystems, planetary photosynthesis and carbon cycling. By sparking dialogue, they hope to also fuel efforts to protect the precious species credited with producing a full half of the world’s oxygen.

“Panda bears and other cute mammals make great mascots for conservancy because humans can instantly see them – and therefore relate to them,” Kim points out. “But plankton are emblems for environmentalism, too. They may not be visible to the naked eye, but they are incredibly important to the earth’s general health. Plus, they’re a really good litmus test for scientists to assess how ecosystems are doing.”

In early August, the trio presented their research to leading scientists, researchers and fellow students at the annual SURF Conference at URI. The students were pleased with the audience’s response to the visually engaging project that showcased the revolutionary imaging techniques. “Our work was really something that no one else at the conference was doing,” Baird says. “Our presentation of the material stood out in the crowd, I believe, because it was completely unexpected.”

–Abigail Crocker

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